When Henry Luce launched LIFE magazine in 1936, he was on a storytelling mission. He said he wanted to edit photographs “into a coherent story and harness the main stream of optical consciousness.” He wanted readers (he would eventually have 24 million) “to take pleasure in seeing, to see and be amazed.” One of the hardest-working horses in his stable was the photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt, who during his 40 years at LIFE produced over 2000 images for the magazine.
Born in West Prussia (now Poland) in 1898, Eisenstaedt broke through as a photographer during the brilliant, seething Weimer years, and he made images that picked up the edgy gaiety of European culture between the wars, like his picture of an ice-skating waiter on the rink at the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz performing a suave arabesque while balancing a bottle of Champagne on a silver tray. But Eisenstaedt’s Jewishness forced him to flee Nazi Germany in 1935 and emigrate to the United States, where in 1945 he took his most iconic photo, VJ Day, of a sailor in Times Square laying a heavy-duty smooch on the lips of an unsuspecting young woman.
Human beings seldom appear in the work of some photographers, but Eisenstaedt was people-centric. He photographed celebrities and public figures such as Marilyn Monroe and Hemingway but also anonymous commoners like that sailor, and he was drawn to social life at every level. The San Diego Museum of Art is running a small exhibition, The Smart Set, that documents different kinds of social climbers of the 1930s and 1940s, from sport heroes and West Pointers to sorority wannabes and high-society dames. Eisenstaedt’s photos are always heartfelt, maybe a little too much so. I find a lot of his famous pictures to be dapperly corny, but in certain intimate settings he had unerring, light-trigger timing for moments when people disclose at once aspiration and breakability, ambition and faintheartedness.
His 1939 image of a sorority sister ironing a party dress, her concentrated devotion surrounded by drying stockings draped above her head like religious vestments, is not so far from the uniform concentration of West Pointers at their classroom desks training themselves to look severe and fearless. Both pictures are about how we try on personalities like costumes and how our actual costuming puts our dreams on display. The young people in these and other pictures are auditioning for adulthood, trying haplessly not to seem too stiff in learning how to flirt, appreciate fine food, and make bright conversation. Many of them look like supporting actors in Mad Men.
In a galaxy far, far away from Eisenstaedt’s photojournalist run-and-gun methods (he loved his guerrilla camera, a 35mm Leica) is the swimmy, manipulated image-domain of photomontage. Two of its best-known contemporary practitioners, Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor, are the subjects of an expansive, nicely balanced exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts. Photomontage is its own kind of lyric storytelling, but it doesn’t rely on Eisenstaedt’s linear and deep-focus tactics. It’s more geologic and makes the eye not only glide across a picture’s contents but descend through its strata or scrutinize seams where two or more images have solidified into one.
Their techniques and subjects couldn’t be more different. Uelsmann is a straight-up, black-and-white photographer who shoots film that he develops in an analog darkroom. But his process creates images that live up to André Breton’s ambitions for Surrealism set forth in a famous 1924 manifesto: if the imagination combines or fuses two or more familiar objects, it creates a never-before-existent reality that issues more from the unconscious than from waking awareness. Uelsmann uses multiple negatives to create a single unified image: working with as many as eight enlargers, he moves the photographic paper from one to the next, making a positive image with each successive negative. The resulting picture is really a narrative about process.
Uelsmann’s imagery can be classically surrealist. He admits to the influence of Max Ernst and Magritte and nods to their work in some of his compositions: rooms ceilinged with clouds; hyper-articulated architecture with crisply interpolated, surprising objects; and uncanny (one of the surrealists’ favorite words) figures of humans, fauna, and flora. A dilapidated country house rises from elephantine aboveground roots; a ladder pokes from a hole in the ground; chairs in an open field swirl skyward like windblown playing cards. In a video interview included in the show, Uelsmann talks about the importance of uncertainty, of never knowing what he’ll find. That’s a fair assessment of his practice, but the images themselves sometimes look too determined. We’re aware of things being placed or arranged just so. The shock of the uncanny that the surrealists pursued is tamped down, except for one image, Apocalypse, in which a group of children stands before a tree. It sounds like a standard-issue motif, except that the picture upends our deepest sense of the order of things, of darks and lights, matter and ether. The tree is all ramified, electric-storm light, while the children, who seem the only survivors left in this version of the end days, are black scorched figures outlined by that glacial tree.
While elements in Uelsmann’s pictures look self-consciously placed or deployed, Maggie Taylor’s compositions look textured from scrims of liquid, fiber, and color. Uelsmann works in film and darkroom, Taylor with the latest in digital technology. The technical difference doesn’t mandate content difference. (The installation cleverly illustrates both artists exploring identical motifs — ladders, playing cards, floating trees, conical cairns, and eyeballs.) Using a flatbed scanner, Taylor scans found objects and images then builds them up or puzzles them together on a computer. She gives these technically ingenious creations an anachronistic counter-spin by exploiting the rubbed-raw textures and lightly tattered edges of vintage album photography; the portraits especially are haunted by daguerreotypes and tintypes. Her pictures have a sleepy, ingratiating, ditzy charm, and even when we feel them performing a cracking chiropractic adjustment on our consciousness, they are irresistibly playful.
Taylor admits as much in describing her process, which is no less artificial and “worked” as Uelsmann’s. She says she pieces objects together from one scan to the next “like a child playing with a doll house, trying them out in different rooms and scenarios and auditioning different characters.” (Uelsmann describes himself as a “collector.”) The thrill and titillation of surprise squeal from the finished work, which has a gosh-golly, what-a-wonder ingenuousness. She has done visionary illustrations for Alice in Wonderland that include two of my favorite pictures. Her version of the Mad Hatter’s tea-party shows the rabbit looking up over his shoulder, worried and shrinkingly suspicious because what’s up there is a flying bat. (What makes us a little nervous is a rooftop in the background sprouting rabbit ears.) And in These Strange Adventures, Alice at the end of her journey lies on the ground, her dress unfurled in Byzantine golds and grassy greens, within a loose crescent of scattered playing cards.